The Sunday Post for January 19, 2020

Each week, the Sunday Post highlights just a few things we loved reading and want to share with you. Settle in with a cup of coffee, or tea, if that's your pleasure — we saved you a seat! Read an essay or an article online that you loved? Let us know at Need more browse? You can also look through the archives.

Signs you may be a female character in a work of historical fiction

The decade has gotten off to a gloomy start. Maybe it's the reminder that ten years have passed since 2010, or the hangover from gazillions of decade round-ups that try to wrangle ten years into a neat, "unbiased" list. It might be the snowstorm that overpromised and underdelivered in Seattle. (I won't mention the political cloud of worry that's always in the weather forecast.) Whatever the reason, I've been gravitating toward comic relief, like McSweeney's list of warning signs that you're actually a woman in a historical novel:

You have a propensity for turning on the radio just as some world-changing news is reported. Also, you still listen to the radio.

Your best friend is a horse.

People often tell you not to be afraid of things, including icy ponds, beauty parlors, muskets, ferrets, the dark, and hot stew. Invariably, you have to interact with this thing before too long.

Why we love untranslatable words

My first brush with linguistics in college convinced me that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (or strong linguistic determinism) is full of holes because cultures without specific words still understand the ideas these words describe. I don't think the availability of a word for a concept influences our ability to think about the concept, but I, like the next person, love to learn about words or expressions that are unique to some languages but not to others. A favorite expression is the French "l'esprit de l'escalier," ("staircase wit") or thinking of the perfect comeback in an argument or conversation when you've already left and are walking down the stairs.

In this piece, David Shariatmadari dives into our obsession with forwarding lists of "untranslatable words" like hygge and kummerspeck to one another and using them to draw conclusions about their culture of origin. He argues that although a word may not have a one-to-one translation in another language, it's still explainable and can usually be captured in a few descriptive words or even an idiom. What he misses, and the part that I find untranslatable, is that words might have many meanings, of which only one can be translated at a time. They certainly have many connotations or connections in one language that are often impossible to preserve when translated, so in that sense they don’t exist in other languages.

The cult of untranslatables goes beyond orientalism. They spread, meme-like, with the same misleading explanations repeated. Often, they hew suspiciously closely to stereotypes about the culture in question. Cheerfully eccentric Nordic types, when they’re not in the sauna, like nothing better than utepils: “Norwegian for to sit outside on a sunny day enjoying a beer.” How quaint. And how informative about Scandinavian culture. Except, utepils isn’t a verb, it’s a compound noun, from ute meaning “outside” and pils, “beer” (after the Czech town Plzen, which produces one popular type). So it means “outside-beer”—a concept hardly foreign to British people, for example, whose pubs frequently come equipped with beer gardens.
Little Women and the Marmee problem

The Sunday Post has turned into a review of Little Women content, but I'm not sorry. (I loved Greta Gerwig's movie so much that I've already seen it twice.) Sarah Blackwood's New Yorker piece about the girls' mother, or Marmee, explores the depths of Marmee's repressed anger, which is in plain sight in the book but under wraps in the movie.

Alcott’s representation of maternal anger feels like a miracle of insight. It comes out of nowhere and seeps in everywhere. Marmee is central but unknowable, cherished yet easy to ignore. She can’t be figured out because her experience of subjectivity does not dovetail with what the social world expects or wants from her, and she knows it.

Our culture’s sentimental attachment to stories of young women about to bloom is strong. Jo’s anger—at her own powerlessness, at her culture’s obsession with marriage, at others’ assumptions about what shape her life should take—is legible; Marmee’s is not. A subtext of “Little Women” is that the explosive potential of these four girls is not, and will not be, realized; this is why Marmee belongs at the heart of the story.